Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant
By Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
One of the pleasures of rhyming poems for the writer and reader alike is that they lend themselves to riddles. I can speak from experience that sometimes the riddles come from deep within the subconscious and aren’t always planned, rather the words feel right and only later release their hidden meanings. Emily Dickinson is a master riddler and given that she never published any of her poetry, she saved her best laughs for herself.
Hart Crane wrote his sonnet that isn’t a sonnet in 1924 when Emily Dickinson was not omnipresent in bookstores and not yet in the pantheon of poets. Some of her poems and correspondence had been published but she had yet to have the kind of impact on modernists and the general public that she has today. To read a much weightier interpretation of Hart Crane’s sonnet below, try Alan Tate’s essay on the subject, he was both a talented poet and a good friend, who took up the cause of heightening the reputation of Hart Crane after his untimely death.
At first glance To Emily Dickinson is a sonnet, but it does not fit a traditional rhyming scheme. It was written while Hart was having a torrid homosexual love affair with a sailor named Emil Oppfer. To those of us that like to see riddles, it could be argued there are several hidden clues that this poem is written both to Emily and Emil the first being the similarity of their names. Crane’s romance didn’t last as it seems that his lover lacked the intellectual curiosity and capacity to stimulate Crane’s pursuit of a poetic ideal and their affair dwindled quickly.
Some critics have interpreted the cities of Ormuz and Ophir as another clue that Crane wrote this poem as much to Emil as Emily, as Ophir and Oppfer are perfect homonyms. The city of Ormuz, also known as Hormuz, was part of one of the most important diplomatic missions of the Portuguese empire. Afonso de Alburqurque sent a trove of ruby adorned treasures to Shah Ismail in 1510 to win favor and begin a mutually beneficial partnership. Ophir is a city mentioned in the old Testament multiple times, known for its wealth, gold and wisdom, the implication that it is through wise choices that wealth is attained.
What is Crane saying in the final six lines, traditionally the volta? It makes more sense in my mind if he is writing it to Emil. Is the flower in Crane’s hand, for his lover, their affair not yet over? The inevitability of its ending plain before him, as he cannot connect to his lover’s remotest mind, and it leaves their relationship cold and penniless without his need for an intellectual bond, leaving nothing left but the crying. However, the lines also have meaning for Emily, whose work is just coming to light at that time, her flower not yet wilted, and whose solitary mission as a writer was for her benefit, no one else’s. Another poet would ask the question, if her poetry had never come to light, would we be left colder and a treasure lost?
Regardless of who Crane wrote this poem, it’s beautiful, the opening eight lines packed with meaning of what it is to be passionate about another person, about love, about art, about life! The lines are also insight into Crane’s tortured soul, his ideas about the role of poetry as a silencer of anxiety, the process of writing meant foremost to enhance the life of the writer, not for financial gain but for the writer’s spiritual or intellectual gain and through their words, leave a trace of their humanity for obscurity of eternity, all depending on the whim of a publisher and fate.
To Emily Dickinson
by Hart Crane
You who desired so much–in vain to ask–
Yet fed you hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest–
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,
Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momently in every breast;
–Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind–
Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill